The Man Who Slept for 19 Years
Ozark Mountains, Arkansas
Terry Wallis is a medical miracle. He has emerged from a 19 year coma and regained the power of speech. His speech is very slurred as he has little muscle control. Terry may have regained consciousness but his mind is stuck in the year of his accident - 1984.
In 1984 Terry was nineteen years old. He was driving through the mountains with two friends when the pickup truck went through a rail and over a 25ft drop. One of the friends died seven days later, one walked away without a scratch, and Terry was left in a coma.
Just before the crash, Terry had married a 15 year old girl called Sandy. They had a baby daughter who they named Amber. After the accident, Sandy soon stopped visiting. She left The Ozarks taking the baby with her. Amber grew up in the city.
Terry still believes he is nineteen, he still thinks Ronald Reagan is the President, and he still thinks Amber is a baby. The reality is that Amber is now a 19 year old, pregnant, girl who Terry does not recognise.
Terry's family didn't understand his condition, so his mother, Angilee, and Amber took him to New York to be examined by neurologists. He visited the JFK Center for Head Injury, one of America's leading brain trauma units.
A coma takes you back to zero. Following a severe head injury, your brain closes down temporarily. This is coma, the first acute stage of impaired consciousness.
Professor Rodger Llewellyn-Woods explains: "The brain is in a state of shutdown. It's not operating in a way that allows the person to respond to any kind of stimulation. It's a result of brain swelling and chemical changes in the brain that prevents the thinking brain responding to it's environment. Because of this, the person appears to be asleep."
Coma usually lasts for up to four weeks then, depending on how badly your brain is injured, you either die, slip into a lighter state, or emerge.
Terry Wallis did not emerge from coma. The brain injuries he sustained in the car crash were so severe he slipped into another state - the vegetative state.
Professor Llewellyn-Woods clarifies: "The brain has certain vegetative functions that keep us alive. The old parts of the brain, the deeper parts of the brain, are involved in maintaining blood pressure, maintaining breathing, maintaining hormonal balance, things like that. People in a vegetative state, those parts of the brain are still working, it's the thinking brain that is not working. It's like a living death, an awful state to be in."
Some time after Terry was diagnosed as vegetative, his wife, Sandy, moved on but Angilee, his mother, carried on caring for him. She was convinced Terry's responses were not mere reflexes and made sure he stayed part of the family, hoping this contact would help him emerge.
Terry remembers everything up to 1984 but almost nothing afterwards. His brain has been scanned to find out why. The scan shows that his right temporal lobe is damaged and withered. The two temporal lobes sit just behind the ears and both are responsible for storing memories. If one is damaged your capacity to remember should be unchanged. So why can't Terry encode new memories?
Further scans reveal the problem. An empty space at the front of the skull indicates that his frontal lobes were badly damaged in the crash.
The frontal lobes process experience, and turn it into memory. This is the reason Terry thinks he can walk when he can't, because the frontal lobes can't process the information that his body isn't working anymore. His understanding of himself and the world around him never gets updated.
The frontal lobes are the control centre for all other parts of the brain. One of their functions is censorship. They screen out our primal instincts such as sexual urges and aggression. One of the reasons he "talks dirty" to his daughter, Amber.
Terry's next test places him in a Functional MRI Scanner. FMRI scans the brain as it thinks, giving a picture of it's different systems at work. Watching Terry's brain while it listens to his mother's voice should reveal what happened to give him back his speech.
The scientists have two theories. Either his language system rerouted itself, or his ability to speak had lain dormant until something triggered it.
The scan revealed the expected, normal, language system. In other words, just as Angilee had suspected, Terry had been capable of speech all along, but some, as yet unknown, factor had kick-started his brain.
The specialist are certain that the overriding factor in his recovery was the constant love and attention from his mother and family.